Recently, I asked the members of my creative writing class if they had heard of Richard Wilbur. Just one of them said that they had, and this was only because I’d mentioned him in a previous session. The following is my own brief tribute to Richard Wilbur and an attempt to understand why this marvellous poet is so frequently overlooked.
Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921, but spent much of his childhood in the rural setting of North Caldwell, New Jersey. In 1938, he went to Amherst College where he majored in English. While at Amherst, Wilbur met and fell in love with Charlotte Ward, the woman that he would spend the rest of his life with. They married in 1942 when Wilbur graduated, but their early life together was interrupted when he joined the U.S army.
Wilbur wanted to serve as a cryptographer and studied for a while at a secret military facility in Virginia. However, when a security check revealed that Wilbur had held leftist views while at college and had associated with radicals, his loyalty was questioned and he was transferred to the Infantry. The unit to which he was attached was involved in the perilous amphibious landings at Salerno and Anzio and the bloody assault on Monte Cassino. Wilbur spent much of the war living in foxholes under constant bombardment and wrote poetry as a way of calming his nerves.
After the war, Wilbur was one of the beneficiaries of the G.I bill and was offered a place at Harvard Graduate School to study English, eventually becoming a member of faculty in 1950. While at Harvard, Wilbur acted as a teaching assistant to F.O.Matthiessen, the editor of the Oxford Book of American Verse, and to I.A.Richards, the literary critic whose Practical Criticism shaped the way in which generations of readers approached the interpretation of poetry.
However, of all the important literary figures that Wilbur encountered at Harvard, the one who had the most decisive influence upon him was Robert Frost. Following Frost’s example, Wilbur has always sought to achieve in his work the same fine balance of a conversational tone with a tight formal structure, the same clarity and accessibility combined with depth and seriousness of purpose.
Wilbur’s first book, The Beautiful Changes, appeared in 1947. It was a remarkably mature and accomplished debut from a poet who was still only 26. By the time his second book, Ceremony, was published in 1950, Wilbur was being hailed as the voice of his generation and his name soon became linked to other mid-century poets who shared his commitment to metre and rhyme. Sometimes referred to as the ‘New Critical’ poets, because their work often lent itself to the kind of line by line analysis that Richards and his followers advocated, it was characterised by complex word play and a fondness for paradox and ingenious argument that was reminiscent, at times, of the 17th century metaphysical poets. Wilbur’s third collection, The Things of This World, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and secured his reputation as an outstandingly gifted poet. One of the poems from this collection, ‘A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra’, was described by Randall Jarrell as “one of the most marvellously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written”. It is certainly a bravura piece of descriptive writing. In the following passage, he moves from the baroque fountain at the Villa Sciarra to the plainer fountain in front of St. Peter’s.
—the main jet
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest
In the act of rising, until
The very wish of water is reversed,
That heaviness borne up to burst
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill
With blaze, and then in gauze
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stones its own applause?
Around this time, Wilbur was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and, inspired by the success of Eliot’s works for the stage, he decided to use the time to produce a verse drama. However, by his own admission, his efforts in this direction were “very bad, extremely wooden”. So, in order to learn the craft, Wilbur set himself the task of translating Moliere’s, The Misanthrope. In this, he was greatly assisted by his astonishing facility with metre and rhyme, and the translation that he produced is generally considered to be one of the best English language versions of the play. Wilbur went on to translate all of Moliere’s major plays as well as works by Racine and Voltaire, all with equal success. The critic, John Ciardi, noted that the most remarkable thing about Wilbur’s translations was he that not only managed to find English equivalents for even the most difficult and nuanced of French phrases, but was able to do this “in rhymed couplets that not only respect themselves as English poetry, but allow the play to be staged…with great success”. Wilbur has also translated the work of many European poets, always managing to preserve the form of the original, even when it involved complex rhyme schemes, while maintaining its semantic and emotional content.
The success of The Misanthrope prompted the composer Leonard Bernstein and his collaborator Lillian Hellman to ask Richard Wilbur to write the song lyrics for their musical comedy, Candide. It would prove to be a difficult collaboration, but the musical eventually enjoyed great critical and popular success.
But despite having been showered with prizes and honours throughout his long career, and enjoying great popularity with the general reading public, Wilbur has always been more or less ignored by large sections of the critical establishment. Some of this is to do with changing literary fashions. With the rise of the confessional and beat poets in the 1960s, Wilbur’s refined and elegant verse came to be seen as lacking in passion. Randal Jarrell, for example, has said that “Wilbur never goes too far, but he never goes far enough”. Others complained of his lack of political engagement, arguing that the elaborate formality of his poetry was unable to accommodate the confusion and complexity of the modern world. Later, when poetry fell under the influence of philosophical movements such as deconstruction and postmodernism, Wilbur seemed even more of an irrelevance.
Wilbur has also suffered from a failure to conform to modern preconceptions of what the poetic life should consist in. Where others have taken to drink and drugs and lived lives of wild excess, often ending in mental illness and suicide, Wilbur’s has been one of quiet industry. Happy in his work and satisfied with his lot, when his New and Collected appeared in his 84th year, he was still writing love poems to the woman he married more than six decades before. A particularly lovely example is ‘For C’, a hymn to the virtues of constancy and fidelity in which, after considering the melodramatic romances portrayed in films and novels, he concludes
We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,
And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.
Another possible reason why Wilbur’s poetry has remained unfashionable is that much of it is shaped by his religious convictions, which most often manifest themselves as an attempt to reveal the divine in the everyday, as in his famous poem, ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’, which likens the laundry drying on a line to angels:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
he morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
But the search for transcendence is a common trope in poetry of all kinds, both ancient and modern, so it is unlikely that the spiritual dimension of Wilbur’s work would prove much of an obstacle to its appreciation.
Consequently, the main reason for the neglect of Wilbur’s work must be sought elsewhere and we will find it, I think, in the modern tendency to equate clarity and accessibility with a shallow populism, while opacity and difficulty are taken as a measure of profundity and true artistic worth. This tendency grew out of an unholy alliance between academia and the self-styled avant-garde. Since the job of the literary critic was to interpret literary works, they were inclined to favour works which required the most elucidation. The greater the degree of hermeneutic ingenuity they displayed, the more celebrated the critic was likely to be. Of course, interpretation is a game of diminishing returns so, eventually, it became necessary to plunder the resources of other disciplines such as philosophy and linguistics in search of new critical tools with which to produce fresh ‘readings’ of literary works. The high (or low) point of all this literary theorising, was the emergence in the 1980s of deconstruction which aimed to show, amongst other things, that the nature of language was such that the meaning of a text was, ultimately, ‘undecidable’. This was great news for literary critics as there was now no end to the business of criticism, but bad news for poets like Wilbur whose work had always been readily intelligible to any reasonably intelligent reader. This is not to say that Wilbur’s work isn’t multi-layered and doesn’t repay repeated readings. It does. But unlike the cryptic and densely allusive work of Eliot and Pound, Wilbur’s poetry clearly doesn’t require an explanation or painstaking exegesis. Consequently, the critical establishment passed over Wilbur’s poetry, as there was no professional advantage to be had in discussing a body of work that was perfectly capable of speaking for itself.
But Wilbur himself has seemed unconcerned by any of this and has gone on producing volume after volume of superbly crafted verse. Reading through his collected poems, one is struck by his incredible consistency. There is not a single bad poem to be found. Even the poems he wrote for children are an absolute delight, brimming with invention and clever word-play. The New and Collected also earned him a second Pulitzer Prize, making him the only American poet to have won the award twice. But what might please him most, I suspect, is that he has attracted the interest of a younger generation of poets who have rediscovered the virtues of metre and rhyme, along with clarity and accessibility – among them the late and much lamented, Michael Donaghy. In a review of the New and Collected Poems, Michael Donaghy suggested that a Wilbur revival was long overdue because he has “a perfect ear, perhaps the most flawless command of musical phrase of any American poet. If only for the technique, every poet ought to own and study this book”. Wilbur, therefore, may still have the last laugh, proving, once again, that if you hang around long enough (he is now 95), you’re certain to come back into fashion.